Monthly Archives: August 2010

Adventures in sustainability: gardening

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I have been thinking about environmentalism for a long time, and what kids of things I can do in my life to be more environmentally conscious without sacrificing my comfort or adding a bunch of work that I don’t enjoy. So, I am a vegetarian, in part because I think that the way we eat meat in such large quantities in this country is unsustainable, but I actually find that I eat a wider variety of interesting foods on a vegetarian diet. I am always trying new things with veggies and legumes, and I actually enjoy cooking. And I have a garden in my backyard because that is the most locally grown food you can possibly get, but I hired someone else to install and maintain it. This way, I get great food with no fossil fuels expended to ship it to my table, but I don’t have to weed, or have a lot of gardening knowledge.

In this vein, I came across the coolest article in my local paper about a couple who are trying to make their suburban home more sustainable. They put in a geothermal heating and cooling system, which sounds like something I will need to save my money for. I am not needing a new heating and cooling system at the moment, which is good, because the initial investment is steep ($18K – 21K.) They also grow a lot of their own food, with a combination of raised bed gardens, trees, containers and food plants worked into the regular landscaping. Mary Deweese is a professional landscape architect, so she is definitely more equipped to design a yard this way than I am, but there are some ideas I can take from her landscape design.

First of all, they grow a lot of fruit. So far, we have planted cantaloupe, watermelon and strawberries, in addition to the sour cherries and raspberries that were already in the yard when we moved into this house. I have been planning to pay someone to remove my Bradford pear trees (non-fruit producing) in the backyard in the spring, and then I will replace them with a peach tree and an apple tree, but now I am thinking maybe I can do even more with fruit. I want to look into doing a fig tree in a container on my patio. Figs are expensive! Growing my own will make for an improvement in both personal sustainability and the variety of fruit we eat, because I can rarely afford to buy them at the store. Also, I had no idea you could grow kiwis in St. Louis. My daughter *loves* kiwi, so it would be awesome to grow some of our own. They have a slightly wider variety of vegetables, too. For instance, I would love to do artichokes, cauliflower and cabbage. Although, I may be getting cabbage for the fall planting–I know that Brussel’s sprouts are coming then. Last year, I went out on Thanksgiving morning and picked the last Brussel’s sprouts for our meal, which was awesome.

However, it is clear that the biggest difference they have from my garden is that they devote a lot more space to growing food than I do, which is a good idea. One good way to do this is the container gardening that they do. I would like to do some potatoes in containers to conserve some ground space. Last year we grew sweet potatoes, and got only about enough for one meal, so I would love to maximize our space for growing more potatoes, and more kinds of potatoes.

Even with the container gardening, I think we are going to have to do more ground space. This year I have been making more effort to use up the produce before it goes bad, so we are getting more out of the garden than last year, but it still isn’t as much food as I would like to have. I didn’t have much to preserve for the winter, so once the summer/fall were over, that was it. I keep looking at what we are getting and thinking it could be a lot more. I am thinking that maybe we could double the main area of the garden by building out into the yard. I am wondering about the front yard, too. It seems a shame to be thinking about pulling up the young tree in the front yard and putting in a fruit tree instead, but the front yard does get a lot of sun. I wonder if I could get the tree transplanted somewhere else?

I even find myself thinking I wouldn’t mind doing a bit more of the gardening work myself, which is surprising to me. As time goes on, though, I am much more excited about the whole gardening concept, and the work doesn’t seem quite as bad (except when it gets to 100 degrees out there!) Maybe I could start with a few containers and see how it goes?

Is anyone else getting into growing their own food? What are you doing?

Using up the Garden: Mint

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Last year, when I had my garden for the first time, I loved it, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. I wasn’t really prepared for getting a lot of some things while getting none of others, and I wasn’t ready to start cooking with whatever I had on hand. I had long been a menu planner, but I was a grocery store menu planner:

  • Think of what sounded good
  • Make a menu and grocery list
  • Go to the store and buy it

The difference between this kind of planning and garden planning is that grocery stores usually have whatever you want, produce-wise, whenever you want it. Gardens produce whatever is in season, whenever they happen to be ready. I just wasn’t prepared for that shift, from starting with a menu and getting whatever produce went with it to starting with the produce that I had and making a menu from that.

This year, however, I was determined that things were going to go differently. I would plan ahead, searching out recipes, and adapting the recipes that I have! We would eat squash every night if necessary! Veggie soup! So far, I haven’t been perfect (a few things have gone to the compost bin), but we have actually eaten the majority of produce to come out of the garden. I want to start keeping track of what I have done and lessons for next year here, starting with mint.

Several weeks ago, I started using my mint in nearly everything. There was so much, and I didn’t want to waste any of it, because it is really good stuff! I made mint juleps, and sweet mint tea, Lebanese lentil salad and tzatziki-like herbed dressings, herbed chopped salads and mojitos. All of this did use up a lot of mint during the growing phase, but once all the mint started flowering and reaching the end of the season, I needed to do something fast, with a LOT of mint.

A quick search of the internet quickly led to a list of liqueur recipes, and I was hooked. It is the perfect way to use a lot of mint, and I can give some of the results away for Christmas presents, not to mention having some homemade liqueurs right here at home. Unfortunately, I also found a lot of other liqueur recipes that I am making with things not from the garden, but that is a story for another time. I settled on this recipe, and started it once as stated, but that barely even touched the huge amount of mint out there. Clearly, more drastic measures were needed.

Yesterday, I went out and cut off all of the rest of the mint in the garden. I used my kitchen shears and cut under all the leaves, but not all the way down to the ground, because I am hoping that more mint comes back in the fall. This may seem crazy when you consider how much work it was harvesting the mint yesterday, but I do love having fresh stuff from my garden! Here is the mound of mint waiting to be processed:

As you can see, some of the leaves don’t look so good, but much of it was usable. I got about 5 ½ lightly packed cups of mint leaves out of this mound. I stood at the sink for probably 2 hours or maybe a bit more, broken up into two stretches, pulling leaves off the stems, washing them, spinning them in the salad spinner (as an aside, the garden has changed my salad spinner from a slightly expensive indulgence–I used to buy pre-washed produce all the time–to an almost daily use kitchen gadget, which I think is pretty cool,) and making mint syrup and more mint liqueur.

For the mint liqueur, I decided to use rum this time, both because I had some rum on hand while I am out of vodka, and because I am just not a vodka fan. I guess it doesn’t matter since it is going to be so highly flavored with the mint and sugar syrup, but I wanted to try it with the rum anyway. Since I already started some with the vodka, I will be able to compare and see which one is better. I put about 4 cups of mint in with 9 cups of rum, playing a little loose with the recipe proportions. Although, really, that is only about a quarter cup extra mint, which will just make it extra good, I am sure. Here is a picture of what I have so far:

Since the jar is so big, it looks like it is not much, but it really is a lot! I have smaller jars for when it is ready to start aging and being sent out to friends as presents (or going in my liquor cabinet.)

For the mint syrup, I brought three cups of water and 1 ½ cups of mint to a boil, then added about 2 ½ cups of sugar. I let that return to a boil, stirring, then turned the heat down, put a lid on the pot and simmered for about five minutes. Then I runed off the gas, took off the lid, gave it a quick stir and left it to cool and steep. When I got back around to it, I drained the syrup through a colander to remove the mint leaves, put a lid on the bowl and stuck it in the fridge. We are going to get some vanilla ice cream today to have with this, and I may make some tea with it, or maybe some lemonade. I made lavender lemonade with a sugar syrup infused with dried lavender flowers and fresh lemon juice recently, and the kids loved it, so mint lemonade may be a hit, too.

Lessons I have learned from mint:

  • I could have started liqueurs long ago. While the mint was going strong, anything I took off came back within days, and it was all fresh and healthy. I would still do this end of season thing, but I could have gotten a lot more out of my mint if I had used it more at the beginning.
  • I need to look into drying some of these herbs. I assume I just need to get some kitchen twine and tie up a bunch in the basement, but I need to look into specifics.
  • I got more mint this year than last year, and chances are I will get even more next year.
  • I need to start saving all glass jars that I use during the year. I can save a lot of things in jars.
  • I could use even more minty recipes.

Overall, I know I did a much better job using the mint this year than I did last year. I am very excited about my homemade mint liqueurs, and I cannot wait to give them to my friends for holiday presents. Now I just need to see if cutting back the mint now leads to another crop in the fall. I am hoping that it will, but if not, I know that I will be better prepared to use even more of the mint next year. I am calling this one a definite success!